Why My Kids Get Nothing and Everything At Their Birthday Party

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birthday party


At the request of some who have asked for more info about our No-Gift Birthdays, I thought I’d explain a little.

When Freckles was turning 3  I found myself down in the playroom, sorting toys and packing some away for charity.

Some had barely been played with.  I thought of the time and expense those toys had cost the people who had picked them out for him.  I thought of how many toys we were holding on to not because my child liked them most, but because of who bought them for him.   I thought of how many more toys were coming at this upcoming party and how long we would hold on to those ones, too.

Mostly, I thought of how unnecessary it all was and how there had to be a better way.

For the next couple years, we played around with birthdays for my oldest 2.  We tried themes, one year buying a fish tank and encouraging people to help fill it with fish and accessories as a gift.  Which was nice until the fish that your best friend gave you dies.  So that was a no-go.

Then we tried nothing.  Bring nothing, we said.  Just yourselves.

People still brought toys.

Then that next year my youngest son was born and my friends wanted to host a Baby Shower.  Except, my goodness I had more than enough from my last babies.  I couldn’t possibly need more.

So since Dh was deployed in Afghanistan, I decided instead that if my friends wished to bring a gift to the shower, it could be a generic gift for a new mom/baby and we would drop them off at the Regiment to be given out to all the new moms giving birth without dad.

And then I had an idea.
What some parents might call a terrible, awful idea.
I’ve been told it might be the meanest thing I’ve ever done to my kids.
No word of a lie, I’ve even been told it may border on abusive.

I still think it’s been one of my best parenting choices yet.
And since most of my parenting choices involve me instituting a game of hide and seek that I have no intention of seeking for, or pretending it’s an hour later to push an early bedtime, this isn’t a stretch.

I banned party gifts for our family.

Freckles next birthday, we sat and chatted with him.  He was turning 5 and we had a talk about his toys. Did he think he needed many more?  What did he think about instead, using his birthday to buy someone else a gift?

Thankfully, 5 year old’s are pretty impressionable and he was on board.

So that party, I spent forever finding the right wording so that I could articulate what it was we truly wanted to say on the invitation.

We only want you to come, nothing more.  But if you would like to bring something to say Happy Birthday, Freckles will be collecting cash donations in support of (Freckles charity of choice).  

We found that when we had simply said ‘no gifts’, people still felt inclined to bring something.  And I can relate, I have a hard time going to someones house for the first time without a hostess gift, no matter how many times they tell me they don’t need one.  It can be hard to accept that your presence at a party is all that’s required.

So since people liked to bring something, we gave them something to bring.  We didn’t know how it would turn out that first year, but it far surpassed our expectations.  Here’s what we have found:

1.  Kids don’t miss it: We wondered if as he got older, he would resent our choice and complain, but Freckles has never asked to have gifts back.  Now with his 12th birthday coming up, he looks forward to choosing the charity he will support each year.

2.  Parents don’t miss it: I hate the part of the birthday party when it’s one gift after another in this frenzy of who gave me what and desperation as a parent to make sure no one’s gift is set aside too early or not properly acknowledged.  Not having to have a present opening at a party might be my favourite part of the whole deal.

3.  The Playroom doesn’t miss it:  My kids have more than enough.  Our close family still gives a gift, generally it is one present that is bought with money from parents and grandparents. We give it on the morning of the actual birthday.
Having fewer toys (and if you see their playroom, trust me, this isn’t that few toys) has actually meant playing more.  My kids aren’t overwhelmed with the number of toys in the playroom, staring at them and then insisting they have nothing to do.  Instead they know each one and play with them all.

4.  Cards  have elevated importance.  My kids now read all the cards their friends give and make homemade thank you cards for each guest.  And the thank you isn’t for what toy they gave, it’s for the fun they brought to the party.  I love that they are learning to be thankful for each person’s presence, not each person’s present.

5. Guests don’t miss it.  Last month my kids received 6 birthday invites.  That was over $100 in gifts that I had to run out and buy last minute because I’m lazy.  Skipping a party because you don’t have time to get a gift is not unheard of.  And I don’t want parents to look at my kid’s celebration as a reason they have to spend money they may not have.  No one is stressed out at Target trying to figure out what a 8 year old girl likes, or whether my kid already has that action figure.   Some people give $40 at the party.  Some give a handmade card.  Everyone has fun without stress or any expense they didn’t need to spend.

5.  I guess the charity wins, too.  I mean, this was kind of an after thought.  I was so desperate to do my best to teach my kids thankfulness that I sometimes forget what they have also given.  So far, Freckles lifetime birthday donations have topped over $1700, have bought paint for the renovations in the kids room at church, have bought a motorcycle for a worker in the Philippines who rescues child soldiers, and has provided the produce for the local food bank during a dry spell.
Drama has purchased mosquito nets for families in Uganda, paid a scholarship for a child to attend dance class who couldn’t otherwise afford it and sent numerous financial gifts to her sponsored child overseas.
And Monster, he bought new books for his preschool and since arriving in our new city has chosen each birthday to donate money to the Special Olympics since that’s the charity of choice of the Police Department and, well, you can’t just give money to the police.  They are not in fact a charity.  Sorry Monster.


No-gift birthday parties are not for everyone.  I accept that while we are not wealthy, my kids have never gone without and we are not in a position where birthday gifts are the only chance they have at receiving toys.

And even beyond that, quite honestly this is just what works for our family.  Everyone is different, so please don’t take this as an implication that everyone needs to switch to what we do.
It’s just one option in a range of parenting choices that are already hard enough.  So relax, Mama, and do what works for you.

I mean, I should not in any way be taken as a standard for parenting.
At all.

Last night we had pie and ice cream for dinner.

So it’s really all relative.




  1. I LOVE this idea! It is so meaningful to teach kids that giving is just as (if not more!) rewarding than getting gifts! Such a great "tactic" to teach them about charity and selflessness!


    1. Thanks! I'm hoping down the road it will have paid off in the way they look at gifts 🙂


  2. Kim, you're BRILLIANT! Best parenting EVER! I have been paring down my kids toys for years and we are STILL overwhelmed! WE have switched our personal family focus to trying to "gift" them with an experience (such as a week at camp or a movie out with one of the parents) rather than another toy, but still that doesn't always work and can still be expensive. (Especially with 6 kids).


    1. Ha! Brilliant may be an overstatement. Fed up of cleaning the toy room is more accurate 🙂


  3. This is something we have done for years too. And I LOVE it. (This past year being the exception… ) 🙂

    Thank you for explaining it so eloquently.


    1. We'll see how it turns out when they are all grown, but I'm hoping it has the effect I've been going for 🙂


  4. Fantastic idea! No kids yet – but I'm already struggling with this cultural gifting obsession. I tried to have a housewarming with no gifts – just to celebrate moving with my friends and family. So much for that idea – tons of gifts. There's a wedding coming up in the (somewhat) near future, and I really, really don't want it to be an obligation on our attendees. So I was looking for a way to defer people's gift-giving needs, and THIS IS PERFECT.


    1. I think a charity donation for a wedding is so wonderful. When we got married, we needed, well, everything. So I can't imagine not having gifts! Isn't that selfish of me? But I've been to a few weddings where the Bride and Groom had all they needed and didn't ask for gifts, it was so refreshing (and so much less pressure on the guest!) Good for you!


  5. I love love love this idea! And I think that we might start implementing it next year for Nora. This year we asked everyone to bring something for her tickle trunk because at Annika's first birthday we got a whole bunch of "junk" that doesn't get played with. Best idea ever. Thank you for sharing with us!!


    1. As a guest, I totally appreciate theme parties where we are given an idea of what to bring. Especially if I don't have kids the same age. I love the tickle trunk!


  6. Ben has too many toys and doesn't want to give up ANY of them. It stresses me out because I worry about him not understanding how to give. At his last birthday party, we said no toys, just come in costume. Some took us at our word and others still came with presents. So I LOVE this idea!! And I even have until February to convince Ben and our families that this is a good idea. Then we can explain why we aren't have a full blown birthday party. So expensive and stressful! But that is a story for another day.


  7. I actually love parties, but only because I like being a hostess. So the party part is probably far more over the top than necessary for me. We all have to pick our battles, right?! You got this Mama 🙂


  8. I've been married only a few months, and I'm already trying to figure out how to suggest to my in-laws that we not exchange Christmas gifts, or that we only do a Secret Santa. Everyone is financially stable and can buy their own fun stuff, so we end up wasting money on novelty gifts or generic men's/women's gifts, none of which are all that exciting.


    1. Ya, I find that hard, when family can all afford their own gagets and tend to buy themselves what they want anyways…. we've started doing homemade gifts, because I can't afford what they can't buy themselves anyways! 🙂


  9. I love this. Do you get them gifts for like, Christmas or "just because"? I was raised pretty spoiled — I didn't get everything I ever wanted, but I always got something….even now as an adult, I still get things I want from my parents (I'm not bratty about it…I love and appreciate the fact that my parents do it for me, even though I've told them before that they don't gave to). So my mentality is that I love buying my kids things. I go overboard on every gift giving holiday (including valentines and easter) just because I love watching them…but it's getting to the point where we have way too much stuff for the three kids that we have, and I don't know how to fix that while still giving them *something*, if that makes sense?
    It seems silly and irrational to have that mentality, But it is what it is I guess. :/


    1. Oh I'm with you! Christmas was crazy at my house growing up, and I have stayed a pretty spoiled person by my parents! One thing that I've seen people do for 'gifts' is to make them 'activities', so giving them a night out with mom or dad, a 'date' night with a parent, something like that. That might help fill the need without filling the house! 🙂


  10. I think this is amazing!! You are teaching your children and everyone invited to be better people, and it really is win/win! You are a saint, and you probably don't even realize it. Thank you for raising our future generations right 😉


  11. I love this. Every year my kids give up a Christmas gift to buy a chicken each for a family in a third world country. This pays off as just last month my 6yo son started an art shop in his bedroom to raise money for a charity. He made $15 but he did it on his own.


  12. I've always liked the idea of giving your children three Christmas gifts- one necessity, one educational and one fun. I never got a ton of gifts from my parents at Christmas and never once felt deprived. I doubt we can put a number on how many gifts the grandparents can give at Christmas (the inlaws tend to give 10-12 per child omg) but I love this for birthdays. Annabelle hasn't even had a birthday yet but I was thinking the other day that I'd so much rather people donate the money or gifts to a cause. She won't know the difference at first and when she does it will be a good lesson. 🙂


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